Getting A Salmon's-Eye View -- Realtors Learn Lessons In Fish- Friendly Living

MILL CREEK - Forget, for a moment, the havoc that new salmon-protection rules likely will cause the real-estate and development industries.

Just think like a salmon.

That's the mantra of Adopt-a-Stream Foundation founder Tom Murdoch when he teaches his Streamkeeper Academy seminar for real-estate agents. Imagine yourself in a salmon's skin and try to understand its need for meandering, slow-moving streams, cool water, purifying wetlands, insects and fallen trees to survive.

Murdoch recently conducted the nonprofit environmental foundation's second all-day class at its headquarters at McCollum County Park, off 128th Street Southwest.

Through slide shows, humor, guest speakers and tours of the foundation's own restored wetlands, Murdoch tries to teach why salmon are endangered, what habitat they need to thrive, and why their future survival requires wide buffers around streams.

"I had never really thought about the fact that there had to be bugs for the salmon, and what the bugs had to do with shredding and scraping (material such as leaves and algae), and that the trees have to fall over for the bugs, and standing trees are needed to have the cool water temperature," said Lane Sant, an associate with the Windermere Real Estate office in Arlington.

Now that Puget Sound chinook salmon are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, real-estate professionals are dealing with tighter restrictions on building or landscaping near salmon habitat.

Snohomish County, one of the first local governments in the state to enact new habitat-enhancement rules, has mandated a 150-foot natural buffer around salmon-bearing waters and has banned pavement within 300 feet.

Real-estate agents must take 80 hours of class work every two years to keep their licenses. So when Adopt-a-Stream began offering salmon-habitat courses last month, agents paid heed. With a maximum of 30 people in a class, Murdoch had 20 people on his waiting list for the most recent seminar.

The highlight for many students was the tour of Adopt-a-Stream's pond and wetlands, just outside the classroom window. No trace remains of a paved parking lot that Adopt-a-Stream ripped out to make room for the habitat restoration.

Christopher Karsteter, an associate Coldwell Banker broker in Seattle, said he was so impressed with the seminar that he joined Adopt-a-Stream, bought several T-shirts and sweat shirts, and talked up the program to his colleagues in King County.

"I think the realtors of 1999 get a little bit of a bad rap sometimes. We get equated with used-car salesmen," Karsteter said. "It's not all just money motivated. We're concerned about the environment as well."

The same habitat that sustains salmon is what attracts people to the Northwest, he said. If new, tighter development laws are "sane," he said, he'll accept them, even if they carry a financial impact.

But Windermere agent Clint Bryson of Darrington had a different view of nature. When Murdoch led the group into a forested wetland to point out the telltale signs of moist soil, Bryson strode unwittingly through a patch of delicate wetland flowers that his teacher was extolling.

"I'm pretty much the opposite of the environmental people," Bryson said later. "I didn't learn to think like a salmon, that's for sure."

Bryson, a former logger, said it's not fair that the "little people" - property owners and homebuyers - will have to pay for a problem he thinks was caused by dams, Indian fishing nets and ocean trawlers.

"Basically, if you're (building) within 300 feet of a creek, you're going to get rammed through the wringer, as far as I could figure out," he said.

Kyoko Matsumoto Wright, a realtor with Coldwell Banker who next year will be president of the Snohomish County-Camano Association of Realtors, described herself as "middle of the road."

"I want to see both sides of the issue, to help me make up my mind," said Wright, of Mountlake Terrace.

Early in the day, Murdoch showed a slide of a beautiful back yard, with a stream routed into a perfectly straight channel spanned by a scenic bridge.

"I looked at that in the morning, saying, `What's wrong with that?' By the afternoon, I knew what was wrong. You can't have manicured grass going all the way down, and then a rock retention wall," Wright said.

A few days after class, Wright showed a customer a piece of property that bordered a creek and discovered how well she'd learned that lesson.

"I said, `You can't do anything for 150 feet.' He said, `Well, I can plant grass.' My answer was so quick to him - I said, `No!' " said Wright. "I told him what salmon habitat was all about. I said for 150 feet from the creek, it has to be natural vegetation or else the salmon can't survive."

She was thinking like a salmon.

Diane Brooks' phone-message number is 425-745-7802. Her e-mail address is